Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Writer: Zach Baylin
Cast: Will Smith. Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
Editor: Pamela Martin
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video, BookMyShow Stream
The most detrimental strategy a biopic could adopt (which also happens to be the most obvious) is to begin with the fact of greatness and then reverse engineer the story of what it took to get there. The main drawback of this method is that the resulting film isn't so much about a life lived, but a life curated. One that fits neatly into cinematic boxes, a story that's contrived rather than organically developed. Everyday advice from friends and family becomes loaded with prophetic significance. Eventual obstacles that the protagonist faces exist only to impart meaningful life lessons onscreen, even if their only significant contribution to the protagonist's life at the time had been stress and anxiety. Every action is tailored to fit to a foregone conclusion that the audience is already well-versed with.
A large part of King Richard, Reinaldo Marcus Green's alternately conventional and incisive drama tracing the early years of tennis greats Serena and Venus Williams, follows this template. It's a narrative decision that's justified because of how it mirrors its protagonist's outlook towards life, even if it doesn't always make for compelling storytelling. "I'm in the champion-raising business," their father Richard (Will Smith) declares at one point, a signpost that signals not only his parenting skills but how the movie will progress. Part helicopter parent, part drill sergeant and part media-savvy publicist — some might snidely amend that to 'self-publicist' — Richard devises a decade-spanning plan for his two tennis prodigies, one that includes his wife giving birth to them in the first place. He repeatedly reminds them that they're going to be world number 1s, millionaires and champions, statements that seem like overkill for anyone currently familiar with the sisters' reigning status.
With an understanding beyond their years, the girls fall into line with his vision easily, putting up little resistance. The familiar beats of sports biopics follow — the grueling hours of practice, the sacrifices, the immense parental pressure that treads the murky line verging on child abuse. Throughout, Richard's methods of pushing his daughters towards greatness are presented as questionable, but largely accepted and validated instead of being interrogated further. The one neighbour who objects to how he treats his children is depicted as crazy. A tournament montage, which juxtaposes Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) against children whose parents publicly badger and belittle them, uses downturned faces and stooped shoulders to convey the impression that the Williams' sisters are better off with a father who prods them to build their impressive skillset, instead of eroding the foundations of their self-worth.
Steadily, however, a more skillful movie, one that relies on revelatory images instead of rote proclamations, begins to unfurl at the edges. It shows how cycles of racial abuse and violence take drastic, desperate measures to escape. King Richard becomes a fierce story of Black identity and Black pride, which goes some way in explaining Richard's motivations. That he has been at the receiving end of targeted attacks that left his confidence shaken means he won't let anyone else undermine his children's. He pushes them so hard only because every minute spent on the courts is a minute off the streets. Recurring visuals of the family entering tennis courts, a White-dominated space, reinforce the idea.
Despite the looming spectre of race, the film's stakes remain largely lowkey, which on some level is a reflection of the way Richard raises his girls — with an outsize confidence so rock steady, every obstacle seems to shrink before it. They breeze through nearly every match they play, which highlights their impressive work ethic but simultaneously deflates the game of any dramatic tension. The movie's conflicts, which swirl around at the corners of the frame, are largely from external sources, with the family unit presenting a united front that minor disagreements can't dent. One of its most endearing images is that of the family driving to and from matches, all crammed into a red van brimming over with warmth and affection. When Venus begins blazing a trail across the courts, relegating Serena to her shadow, the sibling rivalry is depicted with restraint, with the love these two sisters share far outweighing their competitiveness. Even Richard's indiscretions, which include fathering children outside his marriage, are introduced to the plot briefly, as a throwaway line during an argument. It's only the measured venom in his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis)'s voice that makes it sting.
Smith, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Richard, plays the man as an exasperating presence, making wild, unpredictable decisions even as he insists that they're all part of a well-thought-out plan. His assured stance stems from his conviction about the future, even as the sadness in his eyes is a remnant from the trauma of his past. Every epithet he bestows his children with, time and time again, feels like the familiar ghost of a future that we've already seen play out in real time. But, as King Richard so stealthily conveys by the end, without his repeated prompting, it might not have happened at all.
Recommendation in collaboration with Amazon Prime Video